Print your own fabric with minimal supplies
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
I have often been asked about the stencil printing technique that I use on fabric and have given answers over Instagram, but I feel that perhaps more of you will be helped by a few blogposts with some more explanation.
I started stencil printing on fabric at first because at that time screen printing was not available to me. The studio where I learned to screen print closed and screen printing at home was too big of a step for me. So I fell back on what I taught myself as a teenager when I wanted to print a table cloth as a present (I would not recommend on large project like that by the way).
Stencil printing is a low cost technique and really easy to start with, what I did not know then is that new possibilities of the technique would reveal themselves as I was exploring it to such an extent that now stencil printing remains a favourite technique to use and I still use it beside screen printing (that I now also do from home).
Lets start with the things you need:
For the stencils themselves I started with the easiest option, I took a transparent file folder (a relatively stiff one) that I had lying around. It worked, I could cut stencils that
were not too complicated, print with them and clean them. The durability of these stencils however was limited, but it was a good start, I think it took me several months to find a better alternative and all that time I used this no cost option. So that could very well be your choice when you first begin. What I found in the end however was ‘mylar’ and that was a complete game changer because it is really strong, very easy to cut and clean. Even relatively complicated stencils would not tear when washing under a hot tap. I get mine in a specialised webshop for spray art.
People also use stencils made of thin cardboard, for example in the Japanese tradition. I have no personal experience with this, I’ve never explored it because I build patterns using a single stencil over and over. Therefore transparency is important for me to see where I place my stencil.
I have used exacto knives from the start and tried some other knives, but nothing has worked as well. I use the standard variety. There are exacto knives that are meant to cut round shapes, but for cutting plastic I’ve never found they worked very well.
There are so many inks for fabric printing out there and I’ve always used the same kind (from Zeebra in Ede in the Netherlands, they unfortunately do not have a webshop), but I think other inks meant for screenprinting should work equally well. Within the brand I use there are some varieties: inks that are more transparent and inks that are more opaque. I go for the transparent variety both for the effect that I want to achieve and also because the opaque inks clog my brushes faster. The ink I use is waterbased and can be fixated onto the fabric by heat setting (ironing the fabric once the ink has dried), but do follow instructions of the brand you use. Great thing about stencil printing is that you need only small quantities of ink (unlike screen printing), and I started with the smallest containers available.
The tool that seems the simplest of all is the hardest to get to grips with. You basically need a stiff brush with a flat end intended for stencil printing. These brushes are widely available here and are mostly made of pig hair, but there is a large variety in stiffness and quality that I’ve only learned to recognise with practice. I always go for the brushes with the most bounce (the stiffest ones) and I prefer to buy them in a brick and mortar shop not online so I can feel them. A few months ago I came across a nylon brush that was brilliant (it maintained it’s bounce much longer and dried really fast), but I’ve not been able to find it again yet. Problem with the brushes when you are doing a larger project can be that the brushes become clogged with too much ink, they loose their bounce and that limits the effects you can achieve with them. When I’m printing I often change brushes for that reason.
You can stencil print on any kind of smooth natural fabric (like cotton, linen or silk), too much texture in the fabric makes stencil printing difficult and ink often does not take well on synthetic fabrics. Question I had when I started is whether to wash the fabrics before printing. It is usually recommended for two reasons: fabric can shrink quite a bit when you print in the places where there is ink and this makes your fabric wobbly. Also fabrics are often treated with emulsions to stiffen them, sometimes ink does not take well on the emulsion and might therefore not be as durable as when you print on pre washed fabric.
There can also be reasons not too wash the fabric, first it’s takes a long time to iron the washed fabric to get it as smooth as when you bought it, and also I prefer the stiffness in some projects like bags. So it really is a process of trial and error, to find out the amount of shrinkage and whether the ink takes well on the fabric. I often print on artists canvas that does take my ink well without pre washing it and that shrinks minimally, but I found that other fabrics really do need to be washed.
This is the first post in a small series. In the next post you'll find more information about the actual printing process. Look for the next tutorials in my blog and if you want to make sure you don't miss them you can subscribe to my newsletter (use the pop up on the website or the box in the sidebar of the blog) to get a note in your inbox.
I have also a much more in depth class on stencil printing on Skillshare. If you love this technique have a look as this class will let you in to all the details.